Government & Politics

Prairie Village considers curbing oversized homes on small lots

The new owners of Corinth Square tout their involvement in community events. Ellen Lund, 6, of Prairie Village, Kan., danced as Coversmith played in August during the KU Kickoff at Corinth Square in Prairie Village.
The new owners of Corinth Square tout their involvement in community events. Ellen Lund, 6, of Prairie Village, Kan., danced as Coversmith played in August during the KU Kickoff at Corinth Square in Prairie Village. T. Rob Brown/Special to The Star

Prairie Village wants to curb the building of oversized homes on small lots, and the new out-of-state owners of the city’s two main shopping centers came under fire at Monday’s City Council meeting.

City planning staff Monday night laid out a proposed set of zoning and design regulations designed to prevent overbuilding of homes in established Prairie Village neighborhoods.

The overlay rules would establish a sliding scale limiting the height and volume of a home based on its lot size. Staff said current zoning rules are so flexible that people building homes on vacant lots or tearing down older homes and building new ones can construct houses that dwarf their neighbors or leave side buffers of as little as four feet wide.

Assistant City Manager Wes Jordan said the rules were first inspired by members of the Prairie Village Homes Association, which saw increased development in the area that could change the character of their neighborhood. City officials then determined such rules might be a good idea citywide, especially in neighborhoods where homeowners associations don’t already control the types of houses being built.

“I think this is a challenge for nearly every community that is similarly situated — finding the balance of valuing the existing character that (Prairie Village) is accustomed to while being mindful of changing needs and demographics in our community,” Jordan said.

Jordan noted that housing construction is on an upswing in Prairie Village. He said the city has so far processed 449 plan reviews this year, compared with 245 last year, and has approved or is considering 28 new home builds, compared with nine in all of 2013.

The final set of rules may also set landscape standards near streets, building patterns, construction quality and details of architectural style or historic character.

The rules still must be finalized by a committee of builders, architects and other groups before going to public hearings and approval by the city’s Planning Commission and the City Council, perhaps as early as January.

Council members advised caution in developing and approving the new rules. In particular, they wanted to be certain that the rules worked well with more restrictive neighborhood covenants or deed restrictions.

Jordan said covenants would have superiority. He also said he and other staff understood they would not get unanimous approval from home builders and residents.

“We’re not going to get consensus on this because every time we make something smaller, we’re pulling a dollar out of the developer’s pocket,” he said.

Also Monday, some members of the City Council took to task the new owners of Prairie Village’s Corinth Square and The Village Shops.

Officials from First Washington Realty Inc. appeared before the council Monday night to provide an update of the Maryland-based company’s first seven and a half months as landlord of the shopping centers. Their report included details of performing almost $500,000 in deferred maintenance of the centers, as well as participation in community events, such as a city’s annual VillageFest in July.

“As landlords and owners, our job is to create a platform where our tenants can be successful,” said Monica Mallory, regional property manager for First Washington, which bought the two centers, as well as Fairway Shops, in January.

Tom Proebstle, a partner of architecture firm Generator Studio, also outlined planned renovations to several buildings and public areas, some of the work paid for with a 1-percent sales tax raised through Community Improvement District agreements adopted for both centers in 2010.

But when it came time for the council to speak, members laid out a long list of grievances they’ve received from merchants at the two properties.

Councilwoman Jori Nelson said store owners have complained to her about a lack of communication from the new owners and not knowing their long-term plans for the centers. They also said their rents have gone up dramatically, which may force some stores to close or increase their prices, and tenants who are renewing their leases have described feeling intimidated and needing to hire attorneys to assist with the negotiations.

Others noted dead landscaping and other features needing repair.

“There’s a real distrust and fear on the merchants’ side,” Nelson said. “These tenants have been part of Prairie Village for 30 years. They were really hoping for a partnership with you, but instead they feel they’re just another mall in the portfolio.”

Councilwoman Ashley Weaver said she hoped the new owners weren’t trying to replace local businesses with national chains. “I can tell you if that does happen and these people are driven out, the community will be in an uproar,” Weaver said.

Alex Nyhan, a senior vice president for First Washington, assured council members that the company is working with tenants fairly and doesn’t want to force any of them to leave.

“We’re all about keeping the occupancy high,” Nyhan said. “We’re so blessed to have these merchants, and it’s our job to help them succeed. We don’t have some secret plan in our pocket to get rid of everybody and bring new merchants in.”

He said Kansas City is the only location where the company has a local employee managing their properties, and that Mallory regularly interacts with tenants. But council members said the tenants they’ve heard from want more interaction with upper-level executives in the company.

Under questioning from the council, Nyhan agreed to schedule a meeting with tenants in the near future.

The council also took the next step toward switching its city council and mayoral elections as required by a new state law.

Under the change, council members would see their staggered four-year terms shortened by three months as the switch to November elections in odd-numbered years. One group would be elected next April and serve until the end of 2019 while a second group would be elected in November 2017 and serve until January 2022. The mayor’s seat would be staggered to be up for election in even-numbered years, beginning in 2018 and serving until January 2023. After the initial shortened terms, both the council members and the mayor would serve full four-year terms.

City Attorney Catherine Logan proposed implementing the changes through an ordinary ordinance rather than changing the city charter. The city would then repeal the sections of the charter dealing with city elections. She said besides being a simpler process this would make it easier to implement changes if the Kansas Legislature adopts additional requirements on municipal elections in the future.

Lastly, Jordan told the council that Deffenbaugh Industries has placed a planned pilot project for curbside glass recycling in Prairie Village on hold while it works out some logistical problems. The project, announced in July and set to begin this month, was to collect glass for roughly 200 homes in the Prairie Village neighborhoods of Normandy Square and Corinth Hills. Based on the results, Deffenbaugh said it would roll out curbside glass recycling citywide next year.

David Twiddy: